Building a Conservation Community in the Mexican Desert

The Vermillion Sea Institute is connecting local residents and global partners to conserve Baja’s distinct landscape.

It’s July in the Vizcaino Desert, Baja California, Mexico, several grueling hours’ drive from the nearest paved road. At the Rancho San Gregorio, 18 of us, graduate students from all over the US, are stumped by a question that Rafael Villavicencio, the ranch’s historic owner and residing ethnobotanist, has posed. Pointing at a trailside pit lined with stacked and mortared granite, the craggily handsome 57-year-old has asked, “What do you think this is for?”

Valle de Los Cirios is named for the cirio, a long, tall tree that is endemic to Baja California. Photo by Greg Harris.
Valle de Los Cirios is named for the cirio, a long, tall tree that is endemic to Baja California. Photo by Greg Harris.

We’re only a day into our field methods study course and I’m not sure any of our imaginations have really grasped what it would take to live here, in one of the driest places in the world, with only 3 to 4 centimeters of rain falling a year. Most of us find the landscape bizarre and alien, with scorpions and cacti and spined plants and the boojum tree or cirio, the endemic species for which this area, the Valle de Los Cirios, is named. In appearance the cirio is like a long, tapered parsnip, planted butt-first in the ground, and reaching thirty feet in the air, with bristles of short arms double-helixing their way up to a top supple as a whip.

Someone finally ventures to answer Villavicencio’s question about the pit. “Is it for bathing?” We’ve been told we’re near a spring. And there are a few palm trees (“like in cartoons of oases,” one student says wonderingly) with orioles flitting about, their nests hanging beneath the fronds like woven fruit.

“Remember,” Villavicencio prompts, “When my grandparents, and the generations going back to the 1700s lived here, there was no road and no shops for things like clothes.”

Still no one can answer.

“For leather curing,” he says. “To make their shoes and belts and jackets. They layered the hides ten deep. They gathered bark from the elephant tree, and placed that top and bottom, soaking it all in water from the spring. Then they invited us kids to dance on top, until the color from the bark dyed the leather.”

This way of life and the ranch itself was abandoned when the family moved to Tijuana for better educational and job opportunities when Villavicencio was 15. The entire region hollowed out for similar reasons. Of the Villavicencios, only one cousin remained to continue cattle ranching. Villavicencio himself had moved to California and was working as a construction foreman when, in 2008, the vision came to him of moving back and trying to reinvigorate the family tradition of healing work; his great grandmother had been a regionally famous curandera, a healer with encyclopedic knowledge of the uses of Baja’s desert plants, up to a quarter of which are endemic, meaning they grow nowhere else. Some of that knowledge descended to Villavicencio and, when he made a first exploratory trip back, it was as if, he says, “the cardón were singing to me.”

The cardón, the largest cactus in the world and one unique to the Baja and Sonoran deserts, towers up to 60 feet tall and branches like a candelabra; it grows slowly, earning its size with a lifespan that stretches centuries. On the Rancho, the ancient cardón reach skyward like reverent hands, seams of ochre fruit bursting from the upper reaches.

photo of cardon The author stands next to a cardón, the largest cactus in the world.

Villavicencio teaches us some ethnobotany. He shows us old man cactus, cephalocereus senilis, with its beard-like masses of needles that accumulate near the tips of the arms. It treats stomachaches and ulcers and, warmed as a poultice, speeds the healing of broken bones. Lomboy, jatropha cenerea, a twiggy bush, has sap that staunches bleeding. He also shows us candelilla, a toxic member of the euphorbia family with stems like pale green candles dotted with blush-red slipper-like flowers. “If it doesn’t have thorns, here in the desert, it has some other defense,” he says. Cowboys who picked up dried stalks of candelilla to stir their coffee learned the hard way that its sap is a strong emetic — meaning, diarrhea for days.

Among us graduate students are zookeepers and aquarium staff, high school teachers and communication specialists, brought to Baja by Miami University’s Global Field Program, a master’s degree that is part of “Project Dragonfly,” a world-wide network of community-based conservation efforts. Cofounded by the husband-and-wife faculty team of Chris and Lynne Myers, Dragonfly is the largest conservation and community leadership graduate program in the country, with roughly 1,000 students enrolled. Many start learning field methods here.

All of us are taking careful notes, appreciating the ways Villavicencio guides us to understand the landscape. He in turn appreciates our presence, not merely for the contributions we might make in scientifically recording some of his knowledge, but for helping make his restoration of the ranch, and this unique region, possible. “I love you,” he says, concluding his ethnobotany tour. “For being here. For being who you are.”

The community Villavicencio has constructed to sustain Rancho San Gregorio began under inauspicious circumstances. His mother and uncles had decided to sell off the historic family property, and considered Villavencio’s dream of returning laughable, saying, “Why would you go back and live like your grandfather did, like a donkey on the land?” His own wife and children thought he was crazy. When in 2008 he came back, the land was nearly under contract to “some gringo.” Due to a coincidence involving Villavicencio’s travel for his healing work, he came across the gringo — and that was where his fortunes, and the ranch’s, began to change.

The gringo was Lane McDonald, a biology professor who at that point had spent decades stewarding the Vermilion Sea Field Station in nearby Bahía de los Ángeles (32 kilometers as the crow flies — crows, of course, not having to deal with the mountain roads). That station, originally founded by the San Diego Museum of Natural History, had since 1960 hosted scientific investigations of Baja’s marine ecosystems, which are as unique in their abundance as its deserts are in their asperity. The whale sharks, vaquitas, giant squid, whelk, and teeming flights of pelicans and blue-footed boobies had drawn the attention of generations of professors and students from universities as far flung as Vanderbilt and Stanford. The team of John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts (“Doc” of Cannery Row) collaborated on a book on the area, The Log from the Sea of Cortez. Lane had raised his family spending summers and holidays in Bahía de los Ángeles, and had long harbored the idea of enlarging the station’s work to the desert ecosystem in the mountains above it.

The meeting brought together their different purposes, and the result is the Vermilion Sea Institute, an umbrella organization that facilitates investigations like those of my fellow graduate students; we spent time at both Rancho San Gregorio and the Vermilion Sea Field Station. Over the ten years since McDonald and Villavicencio met, the Global Field Program has brought 50 groups like ours, bringing vital financial resources to a place where funding streams are scarce. The revenue generated through the program has allowed both places to upgrade equipment and involve an ever-greater community, locally and globally, in the project of conservation.

Meghann McDonald, Lane’s daughter and a biology teacher herself, tells us how relationships maintained since she was a child, combined with research into grouper spawning sites, helped support the community of Bahía de los Ángeles in becoming the first community in Mexican history to propose its own conservation plan to the government. Rafael Villavicencio and his family, including his cattle-ranching cousin, are, along with the McDonalds, working to expand and upgrade legal protections of the nature reserve that surrounds Rancho San Gregorio, the Valle de Los Cirios.

The partnership between the Global Field Program and the Vermilion Sea Institute broadens the idea of community-based conservation such that “community” extends well beyond the local inhabitants, and “conservation” creates as well as defends. Villavicencio, the McDonalds, and others associated with the Vermilion Sea Institute are acting to preserve and restore local ecosystems, but they are also building something new, with global partners.

No better emblem of this exists than the ranch’s palapa, its classroom. Built by Villavicencio and his sons using only local materials, its beams are scavenged trunks of cirio with their distinctive helices of branch-holes. Its walls are clad with dried stalks of desert agave, and its roof is made of palm leaves. Outside, a satellite dish provides internet access, powered (as are the lights screwed into the cirio trunks) by a single cranky solar panel, which has to be turned by hand to face the sun.

What we learn there is something that extends beyond scorpion biology and field study design, beyond the scientific names and inventory of the area’s bewildering jungle of cacti, though we learn all that as well. We are migratory, here for a moment, bringing resources from elsewhere. As Villavicencio guides us to cook with prickly pear and to heal with lomboy, to find the caves where a thousand years ago people sat lookout and left behind paintings of what they saw, he shows us what in his absence would seem impossible: how this place, which initially seemed so inhospitable, holds the makings of home.

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